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Belfast City Council: Row erupts over ‘conflicts of interest’

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The special meeting to place on Friday

The special meeting to place on Friday

The special meeting to place on Friday

A row erupted during a special meeting of Belfast City Council (BCC) on Friday over perceived conflicts of interest regarding a proposal for a Christmas fuel and food voucher scheme for citizens.

The special meeting was called by Sinn Fein to debate the party's motion to provide BCC's nine 'strategic community partners' with £650k in funding for the scheme.

Sinn Fein wanted funding diverted to these partner groups, bypassing an open tender process. Its motion was tabled by the party's group leader on BCC, Cllr Ciaran Beattie.

At the beginning of the meeting, City Solicitor John Walsh briefed members on the rules around declaring conflicts of interest regarding community groups when discussing funding which may go these groups. Mr Walsh's comments came after concerns were raised over some councillors allegedly failing to adequately declare interests on previous occasions.

The Green Party this week spoke out on the issue of conflicts of interest and called for a review to be undertaken to ensure the funding process is "fair, transparent and accountable".

Some heated words were exchanged over the issue, with Lord Mayor Kate Nicholl having to intervene on several occasions asking councillors to simply declare their interests and not make "political points".

More than 30 minutes was spent over declaring conflicts of interests before the debate on the motion even began, with eight councillors having to exempt themselves from the meeting over their interests and others seeking clarification on the rules from Mr Walsh.

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The original Sinn Fein motion was amended to highlight that all the funding would go solely towards food and fuel vouchers for those in need and no group or individual involved in the scheme will benefit financially from it.

When the debate got under way, Sinn Fein council group leader Ciaran Beattie said it was "disgraceful" that others had "attempted to stop money going out of this council into the pockets of those who need it".

"I think that's an absolute disgrace, but we are where we are and this council has an opportunity to reach out to those in need, to send a message to those out there to the people of Belfast that this council cares," he said.

"[To send the message] that the parties on this council care about those in need, they care about the vulnerable, they care about the low-paid workers, they care about those on benefits. We, as a council, should send that message out by granting this funding to our strategic partners, to allow them to put a programme in place.

"This Christmas is going to be particularly difficult for families, because of the rising fuel costs, food costs, and all the other dynamics that cam into play around Covid."

The amended motion was seconded by DUP Cllr Dale Pankhurst.

Green Party Cllr Mal O'Hara tabled a further amendment to Cllr Beattie's motion.

"We were going to advocated instead that we give some money to the strategic groups, we give some money to the thematic groups (other groups that BCC works with), and we give some money to other organisations that are well-established in addressing winter poverty and hardship," he said.

"Organisations like the Salvation Army and St Vincent DePaul, [we propose providing] additional support to mental health and well-being organisations, funding to Women's Aid, on top of what we already provide, the Men's Advisory Group and also particular funding to asylum seekers and refugees.

"Those groups are needy too. Sinn Fein members should reflect that it is not just the strategic partners who responded in this crisis."

In the end, Sinn Fein's amended motion was passed, without a vote.


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